With 60 percent of its students learning to speak English and nearly nine in 10 coming from low-income families, Westport Elementary School isn't supposed to be a high-performing school, Principal Marla Mack said. But it is.
Depending on the grade, 67 percent to 80 percent of the students scored proficient or above in English on state test scores released Tuesday. The county average is 46.6 percent.
"Every grade level had something to be proud of because they all made gains in one way or another," Mack said of the school on South Carpenter Road near Hatch Road.
Westport's students are outpacing others because teachers are talking less and using more interactive activities that keep students engaged. For example, teachers deliver a lesson then check on students by randomly calling on them for answers or having students answer questions on individual dry-erase boards. The benefit is immediate feedback.
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"Teachers are used to giving information and not checking for understanding until students turn in paperwork," Mack said. "Now, they're getting feedback in 10 or 20 minutes."
Westport is one of many schools in Stanislaus County that improved on state test scores, according to the data released by the California Department of Education on Tuesday.
The state issues the results of the Standardized Testing and Reporting Program every fall. The students are tested in spring, and reports are sent home over the summer so parents can see where their children ranked in English, math, history and science.
Teachers use the results to tailor instruction.
Figures show a slight narrowing of the achievement gap between low- income and affluent students and between Latinos and blacks, and their white counterparts. But a deep divide remains among those groups, especially those who speak English and those learning the language.
"The good news is that the county is outscoring the state average" in many categories, said Susan Rich, assistant superintendent of instructional support services at the Stanislaus County Office of Education. "The Central Valley typically, with socioeconomic and some of our other issues, tends to trail behind the state."
STAR is divided into four categories -- the California Standards Tests, two tests for special education students and one for Spanish speakers.
The most overarching, the CSTs reflect how well students have learned the state's academic content standards. Students in grades two through 11 take the exams and their performance lands them in one of five categories -- advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic. The goal is to get all students in the top two groups.
In English, 46.6 percent of the county's students scored proficient or above; the figure is 42.7 percent in math, according to numbers calculated by the county office of education.
Modesto City Schools saw leaps in grades two through seven, some of them double digits in students reaching proficiency on English and math.
Officials linked that to better teacher training over the past two years.
"Administrators are also increasing their time in the classroom monitoring instruction," said Craig Rydquist, an associate superintendent.
A number of districts are concentrating on students scoring in the lower two categories -- below basic and far below basic.
Getting students engaged
Schools like Westport Elementary are focusing more on engaging students and making sure they understand what they're learning, said Mary Jones, assistant superintendent of educational services at Ceres Unified School District.
Those efforts also help chip away at the achievement gap, which Jones attributes to afterschool programs at every Ceres school. More than 1,000 students get 90 minutes of extra help after school each day.
"When attendance is regular, we're seeing great growth," Jones said.
Though striking gaps remain across income levels and ethnicities, Stanislaus County schools, for the most part, have narrowed those gaps since 2003, when the CSTs were first used.
For example, on the English exam for seventh-graders, 47 percent scored at advanced or proficient in 2003. That year, 22 percent of Latinos reached that level -- a 25 percentage point difference. Six years later, 62 percent of whites ranked in the top two categories and 40 percent of Latinos did -- a 22 percentage point difference.
The chasm between the county's whites and English-language learners is the most dramatic. English-language learners scored 38.7 percentage points lower than whites on English and 18.7 percentage points lower on math.
Stanislaus County's achievement gaps are smaller than those for the state.
Though students typically perform better on math than English, Turlock schools are lagging in math. Superintendent Sonny da Marto expects that to change this year since the district adopted a new math program that's easier for teachers to use and better matches state standards.
The district is working on expanding afterschool programs and developing stronger leadership groups at its schools. Schools like Crowell and Brown elementaries showed gains that other campuses can mimic because of greater communication among teachers and efficient use of "instructional coaches" to provide students additional help, da Marto said.
Test scores have become an important measuring stick as politicians search for ways to hold schools and employees accountable.
"Where money flows, accountability follows," the county Office of Education's Rich said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.